Fair State Just Became America's First Unionized Microbrewery

September 10, 2020

By Jerard Fagerberg, September 10, 2020

Last week, when Surly Brewing laid off their front-of-house staff 36 hours after they voted to unionize, it felt like a devastating blow to the organized labor movement in the American craft beer industry. But that devastation didn’t last long.

Wednesday afternoon, Fair State Brewing Cooperative, a regional brewery only five miles northwest of Surly in Minneapolis, announced that they had voluntarily accepted their employees’ petition to join Unite Here Local 17. The movement not only includes front-of-house hospitality staff but also the brewing, packaging, and administrative employees. With the voluntary acceptance from management, the 11,000-barrel brewery is officially the first microbrewery to organize in the United States. 

“I’m pretty excited, frankly,” says Fair State co-founder and CEO Evan Sallee. “It shows a lot of passion and dedication and courage and self-determination from our team. It speaks very well of them.”

Though employees had been planning to unionize for “more than a year,” they formally approached Sallee on Tuesday morning to announce their intent to join Unite 17. They requested a response in 24 hours, so Sallee met with the brewery’s leadership team and the chair of our board of directors, and they decided to quickly recognize the union. Contract negotiations between the party will begin shortly, a period that Sallee expects to be magnanimous though “a pretty long and thoughtful process” for the microbrewery and their staff.

The term “microbrewery” is key, here, as Anchor Brewing technically became the first “craft” brewery to unionize earlier this year. But Anchor is more than 10 times the size of Fair State, and they're owned by Sapporo. Fair State is the only brewery that meets the Brewers Association craft brewery criteria to go union.

This is the next step in our democratic evolution, providing our staff with a concrete structure under the law for them to self-organize and represent their interests at the bargaining table.”

Fair State’s business model was already distinct from other breweries because they operate as a shared ownership co-op. There are over 1,500 Fair State member-owners who elect board members to represent their interests and are entitled to a share of the brewery’s profits (though the board has never voted to distribute profits). This democratic setup is ideologically aligned with the concept of unionization.

“We work on democratic principles, and I like to think democracy isn’t a result, it’s a process,” Sallee says. “This is the next step in our democratic evolution, providing our staff with a concrete structure under the law for them to self-organize and represent their interests at the bargaining table.”

Minneapolis has become a bulwark for unionization in the craft beverage scene. In late August, Tattersall Distilling became America’s first union microdistillery. Last week, they were joined by Lawless Distilling and their sister facility, Stillheart. Both distilleries are now members of Unite 17, the same union Surly management rebuffed.

The common thread in all these organization efforts has been Unite 17 secretary-treasurer Sheigh Freeberg. Freeberg was in the room on Tuesday morning when Fair State employees met with Sallee, and he was in the parking lot with Unite Surly Workers when their bid was denied. Though Unite 17’s focus is on hospitality employees and their jurisdiction is limited to Minnesota, he sees the craft brewing industry as a perfect crucible for mass unionization.

“It makes sense that brewers and people that work in beer production would want a union,” he says. “They deserve a voice on the job. They deserve to have a say in the place that they spend their lives, the place that their livelihoods, their rent, their kids’ Christmas gifts depend on.”

Freeberg is resolute that Surly is “not a lost cause.” He’s continuing to fight alongside Unite Surly Workers towards an election, and Unite 17 has already filed a lawsuit alleging Surly of illegal retaliation and intimidation. He also confirmed his union is working with other local breweries on organization, though he couldn’t say which ones, only that he hopes they follow Fair State’s lead.

“There’s no reason for this to be antagonistic,” Freeberg says. “We can all work together for the betterment of the craft brewing industry.”

Top photo via Fair State Brewing Cooperative on Facebook.

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